It’s Not You, It’s My Enemies

"The Flash" | Art by spidermonkey23. Used with permission.
There are many good reasons for superheroes to keep their identities secret. However, there’s one not-so-great reason.

In particular, it seems to be a favourite of Superman’s, Batman’s, Spider-man’s, and countless others’. It’s what TV Tropes calls “It’s not You, It’s My Enemies,” where the superhero does not reveal his identity to his love interest in order to protect her from his adversaries. While I understand the need to keep loved ones out of danger, I think this particular trope is one that we need to stop using.

In CW’s show The Flash, Barry Allen is a CSI for the Central City Police Department. When he was 11 years old, his mother was murdered by mysterious red and yellow lighting, and his father went to prison for the crime; Barry has been trying to make sense of the event and prove his father’s innocence ever since.

In the pilot episode, Barry is struck by lightning at the same time the S.T.A.R Labs particle accelerator explodes, sending out a wave of dark matter. Nine months later he wakes up at S.T.A.R Labs from a coma and discovers that he has super speed. He shows his new powers to the three scientists who work there—Dr. Harrison Wells, Dr. Caitlin Snow, and Cisco Ramon—and they team up to help him learn about his new abilities.

One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s only the male superheroes who use this excuse.

At the same time, Barry’s adoptive father, Detective Joe West, is hunting down a criminal with the supposed ability to control the weather, Clyde Mardon. This causes Barry and the others to realize that others were also affected by the dark matter, and Barry decides to go up against Clyde with his speed. The episode culminates in Joe tracking Clyde to a barn outside Central City, where Clyde kills Joe’s partner and sets a tornado loose on the city. Barry stops the tornado and ends up revealing his powers to Joe, who is both amazed and terrified at what he has seen. The first thing Joe does is apologize to Barry for not believing him about his father’s innocence and the strange way his mother was killed.

The second thing he says is this: “I don’t want you telling Iris about anything you can do. Any of it. I want her safe. Promise me.” Barry agrees.

At this point, I groan and roll my eyes, because there it is: “It’s not You, It’s My Enemies” all over again.

Iris West is Joe’s daughter and Barry’s best friend. She’s also Barry’s love interest and, because of this trope, she becomes the weakest character of The Flash’s first season.

“It’s not You, It’s My Enemies” is patronizing to the object of the superhero’s affection. It also just makes for flat writing and bad characterization.

In The Flash, literally every other character finds out Barry’s identity before Iris, including Barry’s incarcerated father and Joe’s partner, Eddie Thawne, who is also Iris’s boyfriend. What I find unbelievable is that Iris is Barry’s best friend and she’s stuck by him ever since tragedy struck his family; if anyone deserves to know who Barry is, it’s her. So why does Barry and his friends constantly keep her in the dark? Sure, “to keep her safe,” but that implies she can’t take care of herself, even though Iris is smart and resourceful when the show allows her to be. Do they think she can’t keep Barry’s identity a secret? If not, then why tell Harrison, Caitlin, and Cisco? Sure, they kept Barry alive during his coma and provide the science he needs to deal with his super speed, but Barry has no reason to think they won’t turn on him; they haven’t earned his trust the way Iris has. In the second season, Barry has a new love interest: Patty Spivot. Patty is another detective who is interested in Central City’s meta-human phenomenon. In her case, it makes sense that Barry doesn’t tell her about who he is; they’ve just met and trust needs to be built before he can feel safe enough to tell her anything.

“To keep Iris safe” then becomes a way for the show to create some unnecessary drama, which is where the bad writing comes in.

Rather than create tension between Barry and Iris, it pushes her to the sidelines, away from the action and any real character development.

To Iris’s credit, she knows something’s going on and she knows she’s being lied to. After she catches wind of the strange things happening in the city, and the mysterious red streak people keep seeing, she starts a blog to investigate further, which eventually leads her to getting a job as a journalist. By doing this, the show is trying to set Barry and Iris up with the same dynamic as Lois and Superman: Barry visits Iris as the Flash and gives her updates or warnings about what’s going on.

The whole point is to have Iris gradually figure it out before coming to some grand reveal, but this reveal falls flat because Iris is smarter than the show lets her be. In the second season, Iris does some great investigative journalism, so we know she has the brains; she should be able to figure out who the Flash is well before she does at the end of Season One, but the show purposefully makes her dumber than she actually is. This trope makes her out to be a weak character; rather than create tension between Barry and Iris, it pushes her to the sidelines, away from the action and any real character development.

One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s only the male superheroes who use this excuse. Supergirl just wrapped up it’s first season and Kara’s reaction to her powers couldn’t be more different than Barry’s. In the pilot of Supergirl, Kara Zor-El is content to live as a normal human and let her cousin, Superman, take care of the crime fighting. But, she makes the decision to embrace her powers when the plane on which her adoptive sister is travelling starts to have problems; Kara uses her flight and strength to keep it from crashing. She is so excited by this that the first thing she does the next day is to tell her best friend Winn about what happened (and when he doesn’t believe her she jumps off a building and then flies back up to prove her point). Not once does she consider not telling him “to keep him safe.” Some might argue that it’s not the same because Winn is not a romantic interest, but at that moment he is the one person she trusts most; it makes sense that she should tell him.

There are so many other reasons for a superhero to keep his identity secret—like the world isn’t ready to know about him, or he wants to live a normal life outside his heroic abilities—that create interesting drama, conflict, and character development. But, “to keep her safe”? That’s one tired trope that needs to be put to bed.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld